LED BY A TWO-WAY STAR AND A JOURNEYMAN COACH, SOUTH CAROLINA PULLS OFF A SHOCKER
THE 2016--17 season was supposed to be a rebuilding project for South Carolina. The Gamecocks lost their starting frontcourt from a team that barely missed the '16 NCAA tournament, despite a 15--0 start. They supplanted those defections with seven new scholarship players, including two junior college transfers. Yet optimism remained because of two mainstays: Sindarius Thornwell (left), a 6'5" senior guard who was the nation's best two-way player this season, and Frank Martin, the scowling, stomping, 50-year-old basketball journeyman who was entering his fifth season in Columbia, the year that's make-or-break for many college coaches.
Not even Martin could have imagined that South Carolina, which had not won an NCAA tournament game in 44 years, would upset No. 2--seeded Duke 88--81 on Sunday in Greenville, S.C., to reach the Sweet 16. Credit much of that victory to Thornwell, who had game highs of 24 points and five assists after dropping 29 points on Marquette in the opener. Regardless of what happens in New York City this week, Martin has ensured his legacy at South Carolina. The question is, can he keep up the winning—and can the school keep him around long enough to find out how much more he can accomplish?
The short-term answers should be yes and yes.
Thornwell, the SEC player of the year, will be graduating, as will the team's third-leading scorer, 6'2" senior guard Duane Notice. The team's second-leading scorer, 6'6" sophomore guard P.J. Dozier (13.8 points per game), might enter the NBA draft this spring. Should he return, he will rejoin a roster that will have two sophomores who started as freshmen as well as three other key reserves who will be juniors. Martin is never going to compete with Kentucky coach John Calipari for McDonald's All-Americans—his highest-rated incoming recruit is David Beatty, a 6'3" guard from Philadelphia and a top 150 prospect—but he long ago proved his ability to spot the sorts of underappreciated players who can thrive under his exacting style.
The larger question is whether an elite program will try to poach Martin. Last year South Carolina extended his contract through 2022 and bumped his salary to $2.5 million, making him one of the four best-paid coaches in the SEC. The school might give him another raise, but Martin knows that as long as he stays at South Carolina, he will enjoy a level of compensation and security that very few in his profession experience. Now that he has shown that he can win big with the Gamecocks, he might as well hang around and keep on winning.